We Could All Use a Second Look

25 08 2009
From: CTV, 2009

From: CTV, 2009

“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. “

– From the film Dead Poets Society
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Rainforest Depletion vs. Economic Growth

24 08 2009
From: Flickr, 2009

From: Flickr, 2009

After reading an article in the L.A. Times this morning about the loss of Rainforest in Brazil to agriculture, I am once again reminded of the struggle between two opposing forces that often find themselves at odds in developing countries. Do we protect the environment or allow the people to succeed economically?

According to Mongabay, Brazil has lost an average of 34 660 square kilometers of rainforest per year between the years 2000 and 2005. While this is a very small percentage of the total rainforest cover, it is certainly a lot of land, and it has only increased since then. Many of us know that deforestation in general is not helping with air pollution or climate change. We need trees to produce oxygen and sustain life. Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest is not only reducing the global tree population, but is directly depleting one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.

On the flip side, Brazilians and other South Americans have the opportunity to finally make some money by clearing their land of trees and selling grains and cows to North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. In fact, this has been strongly encouraged in Brazil with benefits being provided to those who clear at least 80% of their land.

So we are presented with quite a difficult situation. How can we support the economic gain of such South American countries without compromising the beloved rainforest? It is obvious that we cannot continue on the current path forever until the forests are entirely lost. So do we search for a solution now, or just play it off – business as usual – until we have little to no rainforest left, and we see the extinction of millions of species? My vote lies with finding a solution now. Yet the solutions that are being presented don’t sit right with me. Things like North American countries paying paying South American countries to keep their land forested. This is the equivalent of social welfare to me, except the people receiving money are fully capable of work . To pay a farmer to not do something seems terribly backwards. Maybe some solutions lie in new industries, or shade-grown crops? There must be a way that South America can rise in the world market without destroying its vast and beautiful ecosystems.

L.A. Times Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/22/science/earth/22degrees.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss





Better Place: The Electric Car Revolution

19 08 2009
From: Renault, 2009

From: Renault, 2009

As companies like General Motors, Toyota, and Honda plug away at developing new hybrid vehicles in their attempts to ‘go green’ (and I applaud them for doing so!), a group called Better Place has teamed up with Renault to offer fully electric vehicles as well as the infrastructure to go with them to cities across the world. Better Place’s initiative includes:

  • working with battery manufacturers to produce advanced lithium-ion battery technologies with improved performance, range, charge time and battery life, not to mention recyclable and environmentally friendly too.
  • creating networks of electric vehicle charging possibilities including charge stations and battery switching stations
  • assisting in the development of global standards which will hopefully accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles all over the world (http://www.betterplace.com/)

Now what part does Renault play in all this? Well, Renault has committed to providing the vehicles to go along with the infrastructure. They plan to produce tens of thousands of electric vehicles per year starting in 2011. There will be 3 models available: a saloon, a compact city car and a van. Better Places Denmark is developing the lithium batteries for these vehicles. The plan is to have each buyer sign up for a monthly subscription to have access to the batteries. The partnership will initially market the program and its cars in Israel and Denmark where a recent study initiated by Better Place indicated that these 2 locations had the highest percentage of buyers interested in purchasing an electric vehicle for their next car (57% and 40% respectively). Charging of these vehicles will be available through three methods. First, Denmark plans to construct an initial 60 charging stations in parking lots and on streets where you will be able to ‘top up’ your battery charge. You can also plug the vehicles in at home when they are not being used. The third method overcomes the obstacle of the time it takes to charge a battery. 100 swap stations will be available across Denmark for driver to quickly switch their used battery for a fresh one in only 5 minutes. Less time than it takes to fill up the gas tank in some cases. (http://www.betterplace.com/company/press-release-detail/strong-consumer-interest-in-electric-vehicles-bodes-well-for-new-era-of-sus/, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/aug/18/renault-electric-car)

Better Places is also now working with the province of Ontario in Canada. Despite the deep rooted dependence on cars in Ontario established by Henry Ford in 1903, the Ontario Government has acknowledged the need for change. They have partnered with Better Place to move from the current gas powered Car 1.0 model to the electric powered Car 2.0 model which relies on renewable energy. The partnership plans to create an Ontario wide electric vehicle network powered by Bullfrog Power, a renewable energy company in Ontario. This network includes everything from public awareness and education to government incentive/rebate programs to reviving the local auto industry with the production of electric vehicles to a system of province wide charging stations. Finally, a real solution to recover Ontario’s dying auto industry (http://www.betterplace.com/company/press-release-detail/better-place-partners-with-ontario-to-bring-car-20-electric-car-infrastruct/, http://www.betterplace.com/global-progress/canada/).  

Thanks to Sarah English for contributing.





China and Pollution: What You Can Do

18 08 2009
From: Current, 2009

From: Current, 2009

I know this probably isn’t News to anyone, but China is pretty bad when it comes to pollution. Often the argument goes like this:

  • China’s recent history of water pollution, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions is higher than anywhere in the world.

But then there is the counter argument:

  • North Americans along with Western Europeans have far higher greenhouse gas emission rates per capita, in fact the emissions per person in china are about a quarter of those of his or her United States counterpart.

And my counter argument?:

  • If China’s pollution is so high when their per capita rate is so low, that means there are a few very large, very powerful corporations, power plants, etc in the East that are allowed to pollute without consequence, or so it seems to me. We can’t punish the already struggling and impoverished general population of that country.

My personal argument isn’t based in fact so much as it is in observation and inference. We often hear about industrial catastrophe’s in China such as the recent lead poisoning of nearly all children in one village. We see the polluted haze that consumes Beijing daily (the olympics sure didn’t help thier image). We know that the country is very rapidly running it’s water resources dry and on top of that, it is said that a major water pollution incident occurs every other day. In effect, most of these problems are partly induced by us westerners who demand Chinese goods day in and day out, from irons to computer chips. It is within our capacity to change the way China manufacturers it’s products. We have the ability to demand a clean manufacturing process and the fair treatment of employees by only purchasing goods that meet our requirements. Wal Mart, of all places, is sort of doing this. They are developing an environmental rating system for all products on their shelves, and if their manufacturers don’t comply, they’ve threatened to drop them. The catch here, is that the system will only apply to packaging, which Wal Mart says it will reduce by a whopping 5%. This doesn’t mean much in and of itself, but it may hopefully spawn a new movement towards consumer knowledge of what they are purchasing. A rating system that expalins the approximate greenhouse gas emissions created by that product, the amount of recyclable material within it, the exact toxins that go into the manufacturing process, the amount of water used. If the west were to make purchases based on this type of data and not solely price, then maybe we could see a great change in Chinese manufacturers?

For now, you can look desparately for North American made products (occassionaly you can still find some clothing, shoes, office products, etc.), and you can improve your knowledge of the manufacturing industry in China. Two relatively mainstream documentaries are worth watching: WalMart: The High Cost of Low Prices, and Manufactured Landscapes. You can also support Human Rights Watch or support any number of environmental organizations, many of which will be involved with China in some way.

We can’t blame the country of China for the environmental problems of the world. We in the west have certainly been polluting for a longer period of time. Consider our industrial revolution was over 100 years ago, China’s has happened within the past 20 years. However, they are not going to change all by themselves. A quote from Wang Yongli, a water engineer in Shijiazhuang says, “We have a water shortage, but we have to develop…And development is going to be put first…In Israel [where there are also extreme water shortages], people regard water as more important than life itself. In Shijianzhuang, it’s not that way. People are focused on the economy.” If we as consumers show that we want environmental and social justice through our purchases by buying locally as much as possible, maybe the Chinese will then see the need to meet western regulations on both the environment as well as human rights. This is as much our problem as it is theirs. Don’t blame China until you stop supporting their dirty industries with your wallet and demand change.





Quotes from GM’s Bob Lutz

13 08 2009
From: Maxgladwell.com, 2009

From: Maxgladwell.com, 2009

This is directly taken from Wired Magazine:

“Maximum” Bob Lutz is a man who always speaks his mind, no matter how outlandish, which is why it should be no surprise the General Motors honcho says global warming “is a total crock of sh*t.”

Lutz made that crack during a private lunch with reporters in Virginia, according to D Magazine, and followed it up by saying, “I’m a skeptic, not a denier. Having said that, my opinion doesn’t matter.”

No, it doesn’t, but it’s always entertaining to hear it. Lutz said he’s pushing the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle because “I’m motivated more by the desire to replace imported oil than by the CO2 (argument).”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why Lutz is pushing the Volt, just so long as he’s pushing it. But we have to wonder what the hell Lutz was thinking when he said hybrids like the Toyota Prius “make no economic sense” because of their high cost when GM has promised to roll out one new hybrid every three months for the next four years.

Goodness Bob!

http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/02/bob-lutz-global/





Free Parking Isn’t Free

12 08 2009
From: RenoTahoe:Flickr, 2009

From: RenoTahoe:Flickr, 2009

We’ve all driven out to the mall, or the movie theatre, or the suburban restaurant from time to time. We spend a few minutes circling the parking lot trying to find the closest space to the door and then leave our cars out on the pavement framed in a 9 by 18 foot rectangle of painted lines. What you may not know, is that free little rectangle, costs between 10 and 50 thousand dollars (USD) depending on the area. So who pays this much for the ‘free’ space? Think about how many thousands of parking spaces are at malls, which are required to have enough parking spaces to meet capacity on the busiest day of the year – meaning that they are under capacity 99.7 percent of the time. Does the mall developer pay for that? Nope. Do the stores? Nope. You, the customer, pay for it. This free parking constitutes higher rents and therefore more expensive shopping and dining. This means, that those who don’t drive cars, are subsidizing those who do. And the worst part? Free parking is a mandated requirement for new developments, meaning if you want to build something, you’d better build in the parking spaces, and a lot of them.

From: gTarded: Flickr, 2009

From: gTarded: Flickr, 2009

Sucks for those of us without cars. Are there solutions to this you may ask? You have to wonder if the cost of goods would actually go down at a store or restaurant if they started charging for parking. And even if all of a sudden we were to do away with the legalities and make parking optional, or even try to do away with it altogether, developers would probably still include it because the market has come to expect their ‘right’ to free parking.

So, the solution is to go at it slowly. To begin constructing an urban form that caters to walking, cycling, and transit and not solely the automobile. We run into problems here once again, because anyone who has ever worked in a planning office, knows that planning is it’s own worst enemy, with zoning bylaws enforcing all the things that planners are trying to change.

I’ve only been arguing the financial side of this too. There are also the hidden social and environmental costs of free parking like a lessened sense of community, increased rates of chronic disease, storm water run-off, and the heat island effect.

Even after knowing all of the burdens that free parking places on society, it’s still difficult to view it as a bad thing. I don’t go to the mall often, but when I do, I don’t really want to be paying for parking. I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with that. The one small positive really doesn’t outweigh all those negatives when you think about it. It’s time to move to a community oriented urban form again, rather than a space designed for vehicles.

There is a great scene in the movie Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy where Ford Prefect (an alien) is shown coming to earth for the first time. Knowing that a formal greeting on earth is the classic handshake, he is shown standing in the middle of the road exenting his hand to greet oncoming traffic, thinking that cars were the dominant life form on earth. Think about it. If you were looking down on the world from above with no knowledge of life on the planet, what would you think?

Information from: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010266.html





Walking! It’s the New Driving!

11 08 2009
From: Flickr, 2009

From: Flickr, 2009

A fellow blogger put together a great post on the benefits of walking as well as the unseen costs of driving a car. Here are a few of the things he’s discovered:

  1. 40% of trips made in the United States are 2 miles or less
  2. Even given the above, fewer than 10% of all trips are made by foot or bike
  3. In 2008, Americans consumed 22.5% of the world’s oil production (884 million metric tonnes)
  4. For those of you who like to blame China for being the big polluter, they burned 375 million metric tonnes
  5. If you thought driving vehicles was bad for the environment, consider this. A car produces more waste and air pollution in it’s lifetime before it’s even driven.
  6. Medical expenses due to obesity count for 9.1% of all American medical expenditures.
  7. The risk of death from heart disease could be reduced by 34% by simply walking 2 hours per week

I put these numbers out there for obvious reasons. Do I believe cars are terrible things? Not at all, especially when they’re becoming incredibly more efficient, and we’re finally on the cusp of producing electric vehicles for the masses. I understand that cars are necessary at times, especially given the current urban form of North America – that is sprawl. You can’t really be expected to walk everywhere when there is no infrastructure in place to encourage it. However, I know for a fact that there are still plenty of trips that are incredibly brief and could easily be made on foot. Often our first instinct as 21st century human beings is to hop in the car no matter where we are going. It has been proven though, that this is unhealthy in numerous ways. So, next time you’ve got to go somewhere, consider the actual distance and the actual time required for that trip. Do you really need to drive? Could you benefit from a calming walk and a breath of fresh air?

For more on the social benefits of walking and more stats and numbers: http://svenworld.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/talking-the-walk